Annakalmia Traver leads Rubblebucket in a performance at 9:30 Club on Jan. 26, 2023. (Photo by Casey Vock)
Taking risks in the studio and on stage might not always pan out as adventurous musicians hope.
But with all they’ve experienced through more than 15 years of making music together, Annakalmia Traver and Alex Toth have formed a bond that seemingly empowers them to challenge each other and continue elaborating on the extraordinary sounds they first began making as students on the eastern shores of Lake Champlain.
The former romantic partners and the brains behind the wildly innovative dance pop vehicle known as Rubblebucket, the longtime duo has persevered through more than just typical artists’ challenges on the way to establishing the now Brooklyn-based operation as a pioneer in fusing the sounds of jazz, pop, funk, and so much more to create absorbing, contagious grooves of every shape and size and that tickle all the senses.
In what was its biggest show yet in the nations’ capital, Rubblebucket dazzled and astounded a bustling 9:30 Club the night of Jan. 26, turning the well-known V Street venue into a whirlwind, prismatic dance celebration in a powerful and impressive exhibit by two artists in their prime and an outstanding cast of supporting players.
Having released one of 2022’s most enduring offerings, titled Earth Worship, the group was and still is out in promotion of that sixth studio album, which joins five EPs to grow the catalogue. Lively and insightful for its duration, Rubblebucket’s obsessive and contextually appropriate latest record successfully built immense anticipation for how some songs would translate to a live setting.
Listen to Rubblebucket’s 2022 studio album, Earth Worship, via Spotify:
So, when Kalmia illuminated the stage in a white gown with a veiled Hennin style cap on her head, the crowd let loose, ready to sing and holler along with her every word. The vitality of this talented and battle-tested human could be felt from any spot in the house, but those close to the stage could see through the wispy cloak just how much this moment meant for her in the form of pure elation. And Alex, to her right at his own mic and small keyboard, bared a deliberate expression and intention that foreshadow what would be a performance for the ages at 9:30 Club.
Bold and unabashed in every lyric, Kalmia’s first words of the night were the head-turning initial lines to Earth Worship’s title track, and these established the flirtatious and frisky tone of her presence. She skimmed just above the sensuous trenches of this number, and it all melded into a sassy bounce.
Much of the sound came from reliable sources: to her left, bassist Stephen Becker and guitarist Ryan Dugre — both sought-after artists who’ve released their own materials — were about their business but visibly joyous in exacting the crucial layers of each multi-colored and riveting composition. Though snugged in the back and hard to see from some angles, the highly regarded Rebecca Lasaponaro of And The Kids fame was a clean-running motor, calmly pounding out the multitude of beats required of each ambitious Rubblebucket endeavor and helping amplify and provide texture in key moments and transitions.
Traver would show her dynamism in the opening song, pulling up her large baritone saxophone, tooting hot jazz down the backstretch to essentially begin the night’s boogie in earnest. And meanwhile, Alex and Sean, who also plays with Super Yamba, blasted trumpets in synch — such a unique collective blend of instrumentation and just the beginning of a busy night for Toth and Smith, who would sing, swing and pull the brass up time and time again to provide the intrepid quality to these jams.
Kalmia kept her sax in hand for the start of the “Morning in the Sun,” pumping the air out of her lungs to lay the thick and determined psychedelic array, then holding it down to her side to belt out the words. Adjusting her costume all night, she’d ultimately lose the veil — though she’d wear additional hats — and when she sang into the microphone her passion was infectious and awe-inspiring.
For a return to “Fruity” from 2018’s Sun Machine, she and Smith darted off the stage momentarily and they both scooted back into view in big suits — hers slate grey and his pink. The two of them would rhythmically bounce in front of one another, in and out of view at center stage, hopping to this dreamy fantasy that saw its own rise of the brass as well as the sweetest detail in Traver’s breathtaking voice.
“You guys are making me feel so good tonight!” was her first exclamation of many, and anyone who’s followed what she’s gone through during her career would have been moved at the sight of her — jubilated, sweat glistening on her skin and a packed house rooting for her every move. And just a few feet away, the person who is no longer her full-time partner off the stage but absolutely her trusted co-creator on it — she and Alex were a couple for more than a decade before amicably ending that form of their relationship in 2015.
A survivor of ovarian cancer, Kalmia’s struggle changed Alex’s life too — he decided he was done with alcohol on first day of chemotherapy in 2013. And as part of their shared effort to overcome what was an unthinkably rough patch, they committed to a song-a-day approach to their co-writing and their own.
Reading interviews they’ve done over the years, it’s evident that the events of the early 2010s had a lasting, profound impact on the two of them. And it was through their refreshed approach to music creation that they each successfully grew followings for their solo work, Annakalmia as Kalbells and Alex as Tōth.
Though at the height of the pandemic they weren’t sure if they’d return to the studio as Rubblebucket, they realized they share so much through music and have experienced too much to stop. In listening closely to Earth Worship, which blends human emotion with natural admiration for our physical world, the fluid nature of the words and animated use of instruments speak to a sophisticated project yielding fashionable melodies that make people move and daring lyrics that trigger a range of sentiments.
Listen to Annakalmia Traver’s most recent solo album as Kalbells, titled Max Heart, via Spotify:
At 9:30 Club last week, Rubblebucket was clearly ascending and doing so with a sense of purpose and appreciation for one another, and Kalmia would applaud everyone as the band moved through additional attire and accessories and tag-teamed invigorating takes on new songs like the whimsical “Cherry Blossom” and the diverting, red-hot “Sweet Spot.”
Another new standout, “Geometry” saw Toth step to the front of the stage, speaking through a makeshift cardboard picture frame as he quickly taught the audience the heart-melting chorus: “When you’re far out to sea in your personal hell / Draw a line to me /And I’ll draw a line to you.”
“I wanted it to be like a huge Washington D.C. choir sound,” he fantasized, and the materializing singalong was just a snippet of the room’s steadfast, ecstatic engagement with Alex and his mates.
Watch the official music video for Rubblebucket’s 2022 single “Geometry” via the group’s official YouTube channel:
Of course, Kalmia would shine in sharing some older favorites, and pieces like “Donna” and “Annihilation” from Sun Machine were energized, with Alex in particular bopping all over the place, slapping a tambourine and serving as a conductor.
And with fluffy linen floating all around the stage, Traver would wrap herself in it and seemed to both amplify and intensify her intonation for what would become an unforgettable, utterly stunning version of the Rubblebucket hit “Came Out of a Lady,” first released on the 2010 EP Triangular Daisies.
Laying it all out in marvelous fashion, both Kalmia and Alex showed themselves to be advanced, unflappable entertainers as Toth made his way off into the audience for a trumpet solo while riding the shoulders of a willing participant. And Traver too put herself right out among the people. Those people? Silly, and active — wiggling foam noodles, swatting phallic balloons at the band and lobbing handfuls of glow sticks.
“Thank you so much for your amazing energy,” Alex said as the group collected itself to round out the set, which would include two more from the newest release: “Zeroes as Round as the World” featuring Kalmia on the electric flute and the hypnotic, playfully introspective “Mockingbird.”
An awesome way for the hard-working instrumental crew to shine, the encore began with Becker thumping out a thick and treacherous groove, only to be joined by Dugre, who strolled out, grabbed his electric and seamlessly sliced into the fray with a razor-sharp sound. And when Rebecca moseyed up onto the back pedestal and began blasting away, it was a ravishing departure into the deep, a heavy and welcomed rock segment.
The dark jam marched Kalmia, Alex and Sean back on to the stage in all white jackets, and Traver took a moment before the night’s final few songs to directly involve the audience again.
“I think we just need to do one simple, cathartic scream together,” she was exhilarated. “If there’s anything you’re frustrated about, anything that doesn’t make sense. … We’re gonna hold it together. … Think of the thing — pick out the thing.”
Scream the room did, a bellow that might have been heard for blocks.
“Alright we did it,” was her relief. “That was it.”
Toth again thanked the folks working with the band as well as the hosts of the night.
“This is one of the greatest if not the greatest venue in the country, so thank the 9:30 Club,” he said.
And what ensued might not yet have been seen nor might it be seen again within the storied building for some time. An electrifying performance of “Bikes” from the 2009 self-titled Rubblebucket premiere gave way to a pumping and stylishly slick “Lemonade,” and the sounds of trailing trumpets could be heard as the band would keep its promise of making its way to the back of the house to meet fans at the merch table.
But before it got there, Alex took a detour, turning left and heading to the main bar, where he stood right atop it, singing, clapping and thrilling attendees in a way many could not have expected. Eyes wide and phones high to capture it, it was indeed a rare and special moment.
Listen to Alex Toth’s most recent solo album as Tōth, titled Me and You and Everything, via Spotify:
As the music and applause faded, a long line formed and within a couple minutes fans began eagerly thanking both Alex and Kalmia for continuing what they began as students at the University of Vermont. Alex seated on the merch desk, Kalmia opposite him by the water station, they were both ostensibly moved and uplifted to share their music and the experience of it with their fans — autographs with sharpies, photo snaps and warm hugs.
A creation to behold on the stage and to explore in the record shop, Rubblebucket is unquestionably a must-see and must-hear entity outdoing itself with each release. Prospering together but on their own as individual artists too, and now making the best songs of their careers, Kalmia and Alex are also writing an incredible story of music and friendship.
Morning in the Sun
Melt Through The Floors
If U C my Enemies
Came Out of Lady
Zeroes as Round as the World
Improv – Earth Worship Reprise
Here are images of Rubblebucket along with the night’s opener, Spaceface, performing at 9:30 Club on Jan. 26, 2023. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.